When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism. Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert. He is begging for ignorance. Cursing his intellectual nature. Wishing for simplicity. This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.
It is surprising how much contemporary French cinema owes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944). One of Sartre’s more accessible pieces, No Exit is set in hell and features three utterly hateful and narcissistic characters slowly coming to realise that the ultimate torment is not only to be stuck in an unhappy relationship but to be stuck in that relationship because one lacks the ability to either leave it or change it for the better. The worst hells imaginable, suggests Sartre, are the ones that we create for ourselves out of our failings and cowardice. Since the New Wave, French cinema has been dominated by what is sometimes called the “film d’appartement”, a film that is character driven and relationship-focused and which draws its drama from putting a bunch of people into a closed space and allowing them to work out their problems. Claude Chabrol is no enemy to the ‘Film d’Appartement’ sub-genre. In fact, you could say that he is one of the masters of the form. His mastery comes from his willingness to not only put incredibly strange characters into his apartment, but also to allow his relationships to work themselves out naturally, regardless of how bizarre or brutal the eventual denouement. Wedding in Blood is an excellent example of Chabrol’s approach to script-writing as it is not only funny and fascinating, but also merciless in its desire to turn a cinematic social experiment into a work of satire.
Videovista has my review of Maurice Pialat’s splendid We Won’t Grow Old Together.
I absolutely adored this film, so much so that I went out and purchased the rest of the Pialat films that Masters of Cinema/Eureka have released. Aside from the fantastic performances and the brutality of the relationship dynamic on display, I was also struck by how much Pialat’s style is reminiscent of that of Claude Chabrol. Keep an eye out for more Pialat pieces in the near future.
As with most of the big names of the New Wave, Claude Chabrol began his cinematic career as a critic for the Cahiers du Cinema. This critical career culminated with the release in 1957 of a book about the films of Alfred Hitchcock. This attraction to Hitchcock’s style and subject matter followed Chabrol when he ‘crossed the aisle’ from criticism to film-making and his early output quickly earned him a reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’ and the influences can also be seen in the film I am going to be writing about today.
Que La Bete Meure (1969) was adapted by a novel by the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. It is the story of a man who tries to avenge the death of his son by tracking down the man who ran him over. After seducing the man’s sister-in-law and infiltrating himself into the killer’s family, the grieving father discovers that the family have no more love for the thuggish monster than he does. The scene I want to talk about is the extraordinary opening sequence leading up to the death of the child and the father’s discovery of the body.